Drink Up Me Hearties, Yo Ho!

Looking back at the Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Ok, first off: yes, I said the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. I know there are two more films now. To be honest, I haven’t seen them, nor do I really have much interest in doing so. In Pirates 4, the only thing that even piques my interest about it is that Ian McShane plays the villain, and if I’m feeling like I need some Ian McShane, I’ll go watch an an old episode of “Lovejoy.” 

Whew! Anyways…

I remember when the first film, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) came out. At the time, I just knew it had Johnny Depp in it (and that he was rumored to be quite hilarious) and that it also starred the guy who played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films. I also knew that it was based on a famous Walt Disney ride (this did not fill me with enthusiasm) and that Jerry Bruckheimer was producing it (this made me slightly more interested, though I found Disney/Bruckheimer to be a very strange pairing).

In any event, my parents, my sister, and I went to see it that summer, and I was more than a little surprised in a good way. The movie is incredibly entertaining, laugh out loud funny in places (I still find the early sequence of Jack Sparrow captaining a much smaller ship than expected and then coming into port as it sinks to be quite hilarious), and plot-wise it’s complex enough that it held my interest throughout.

PiratesOTCaribbean_104PyxurzJohnny Depp is indeed quite good here (it’s a shame that he’s played a variation of the exact same character ever since), as is the rest of the cast. Orlando Bloom does quite a good job playing Orlando Bloom. I had never heard of Keira Knightley before seeing this, and I was quite impressed with her here (this opinion would change in future years and other projects). The stand out to me though was Geoffrey Rush, who is clearly having an absolute blast playing Captain Barbossa. He’s easily the most “piratey” of the pirates here, but he still manages to create a real character vs. just a generic “bad pirate” villain.

The production design and direction is also quite good. Gore Verbinski was a name that I really only knew from THE RING (2002). While I really enjoyed that particular film (it’s one of the few decent American remakes of Asian horror films), I didn’t know what to expect for this type of movie. Thankfully, Verbinski shows that he is more than capable of directing a movie with considerable scope, action, and complex visuals.

9310_klaus-badeltShame though about the music. Klaus Badelt is credited with the score, but a closer look reveals a number of the Remote Control-employed Hans Zimmer acolytes who work on so many of Bruckheimer’s projects. I suppose I should give Badelt and co. something of a pass, since they really had mere days to write music for the film. Alan Silvestri had originally been hired to score the film, but for whatever reason, he was let go fairly early on in the process. Instead, we ended up with a rather generic score that could be used in films from a number of different genres.

The most famous cue from the film, “He’s a Pirate” has become well-known (or possibly infamous) over the years, but to me, it’s another of the same generic 3/4 waltz tempo cues that Zimmer and colleagues have been putting out since GLADIATOR (2000). The fact that it has been overplayed by marching bands and TV sports shows ever since hasn’t helped, and the lack of real instrumentation in favor of synth makes it feel like “Zimmer-lite.”

“He’s a Pirate” from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL

Here come the sequels…

The success of the first film clearly meant that there would be a sequel, but unfortunately, the filmmakers got a little carried away in terms of scope. Retaining the core group from the first movie, including the actors, director, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio was a smart move. However, the approach the creators took would turn out to be somewhat problematic. Instead of telling two standalone stories, the two sequels, DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006) and AT WORLD’S END (2007) would be two parts of a single story.

Perhaps the best comparison here is to the Matrix Trilogy. In both cases, a successful first film led to not one, but two sequels. These sequels would tell a single story across two films and would show much of the same problems: an overwrought plot that could have been better told in a single film. In both sets of films, we ended up with sequences that add bloat rather than contribute to advancing the story.

On balance, I think the Pirates of the Caribbean double sequels work better. The new characters, especially Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), actually make strong, positive contributions to the story (quick: name one new character from the Matrix sequels who actually improves the proceedings).

Jones_with_music_boxDavy Jones is a spectacular amalgam of character work by Nighy and visual effects by ILM. While the environment he is placed in (typically dark and foggy/rainy) helps, he might be, with the possible exception of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, the most convincing CGI character I’d seen to that point. Bill Nighy (whom I would happily watch in anything) gives a quirky take on the character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have become a rather two-dimensional monster.

cutler beckettLikewise, Cutler Beckett, who is the other villain of the two sequels, is an already interesting character made even more so by the fact that he is played by Tom Hollander. Beckett is an official of the East India Trading Company, and as such is an enemy to both the film’s heroes and the entire idea of piracy. He represents a more modern sensibility, which threatens the more romanticized pirate lifestyle.

As for the plot, well…frankly there’s too much of it. The first sequel, DEAD MAN’S CHEST, spends an inordinate amount of time getting to the point. Jack Sparrow’s compass is the initial MacGuffin (I say initial because there are more later. Another warning sign.), so everyone is looking for Captain Jack. The problem is, it takes such a long time to find him (something about a black spot curse and him hiding out on an island of cringe-worthy “savage types”) that I had forgotten why they were looking for him in the first place.

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Are you bored or offended yet?

On the way, we meet Beckett, his creepy henchman Mercer, Will Turner (Bloom)’s father, a strange woman named Tia Dalma, and are told tales of a Kraken, Davy Jones, and the importance of a chest, a key, and what’s kept inside that chest. The upshot is that all of these plot points do eventually come together in a way that actually makes sense (if you pay attention—something that, based on reviews, critics don’t expect anymore), but it’s a lot to keep straight on a first viewing.

Again, this is a lot like the Matrix sequels, with the audience having to wait through an interminable opening half of MATRIX: RELOADED to actually get to the point. Unlike that series, however, the payoff in AT WORLD’S END is largely satisfying (if again overlong).

Hans+ZimmerAs for the music, Klaus Badelt was jettisoned for the architect of the Media Ventures/Remote Control conglomerate, Hans Zimmer. This move really only provided a marginal improvement for DEAD MAN’S CHEST. Zimmer does provide a new theme (which really seems adapted from Badelt’s music) for Jack Sparrow that bounces from a rather jaunty melody played by the cello to some “Generic Zimmer Waltz” music complete with his usual synthesizer.

His other major thematic contribution is a theme for Davy Jones, which begins and ends as a rather whimsical music box melody that morphs into something more and more tortured as befitting the character.

As for the rest, well, to be honest if really feels like more of the same to me. It’s not bad in the film at all, but it sounds more like a “Remote Control’s Greatest Hits” than anything terribly original.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to film three.

Whether it was because he had more post-production time or he suddenly became inspired by the entire series, Zimmer turned in a score for AT WORLDS END that is miles better than anything that had come before. In addition to building off of his material for DEAD MAN’S CHEST and Badelt’s ubiquitous “He’s a Pirate” theme, Zimmer cranks out two to three massive new themes that, the first time I watched the film, made me wonder where THAT had been all this time.

The first is the more action-oriented theme, which makes its first big appearance during a scene in which the crew finds themselves stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, and they must flip over the boat to escape (just go with it). The entire scene itself is a lot of fun, and ends on an impressive visual of the ocean “draining” backwards much like the water rushing from a bathtub. Note: I’m also including the cue in isolation in case you don’t want to be spoiled by the actual scene.

The second is a new love theme for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, which does considerable overtime, since the two actors seem to have almost no chemistry on screen. The theme is itself two parts, the first played for the more somber moments, including a wonderful rendition on the oboe:

The second part is the more dramatic of the two, and also at times represents the overall romanticism of pirate life. It’s first appearance is what truly made me sit up and pay attention to the music of the film the first time I saw it:

Another cue of note is for the climactic final confrontation with Cutler Beckett. Thinking he has fooled Jack Sparrow, Beckett sees the tide turn as the Flying Dutchman reappears only with someone other than Davy Jones in command. The music provides an emotional underscore to Beckett’s ultimate failure as his ship is literally destroyed all around him. As long as you can get over the “sailing ships don’t work like that!” it’s a wonderfully shot sequence that also provides Tom Hollander the opportunity to do something he does so well: play someone who is overly confident only to suddenly realize that he is completely out of his league. Again, both the scene and the cue in isolation are provided below.

Finally, I leave you with a sample from the ending of the film, which contains both the original “He’s a Pirate” theme and Zimmer’s new thematic material. If anything, it will help to emphasize how much better the new music is:

Final Thoughts

The original CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL film was a surprisingly entertaining film when I went to see it in the theater. The sequels, while they have their flaws, are also entertaining, at least for the majority of the time. At worst, I would say there’s a good film in there between the two, with an extra two hours of largely unnecessary, but not bad, material. This is what sets these films apart from the Matrix Trilogy, in my opinion, since those two sequels really only have a handful of scenes that are worth the viewer’s time. Here, you have three films that are highly entertaining, well made, and show Johnny Depp at a stage well before his schtick had become tiring. While it could be a challenge to make it through all three in one sitting (there’s nearly 8 hours of film here!), they would make for a fun weekend. Definitely recommended!

Review: COMA (1978)

Medicine in the Movies Blogathon

oie_yqu5svckigzsThis post was written as part of the Medicine in Movies Blogathon, which is being hosted by Charlene over at Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews.

Few things are as universally fear-inducing like the the need to undergo a surgical procedure, no matter how minor. But what if that relatively minor procedure were the part of something much more nefarious? This is the question posed by the 1978 film COMA, which was based on physician-turned-author Robin Cook’s 1977 bestseller of the same name.

The success of the novel made it a natural for being adapted as a feature film. Enter another writer who had originally attended medical school: Michael Crichton. Crichton had already made a name for himself with a number of novels including  “The Andromeda Strain” and “The Terminal Man”, both of which had a medical angle to them. Crichton had also written and directed the technothriller WESTWORLD (1973), and he was called upon to write the screenplay for COMA and also to direct.

The Film

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Magnum, P.I., felled by a bum knee

The story centers around physician Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), whose friend undergoes a relatively routine surgical procedure only to end up comatose. Her superiors and colleagues, including fellow resident/boyfriend Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), encourage her to accept what happened as a random, unfortunate medical event. However, Susan isn’t ready to give up looking for answers, especially when another patient in for orthopedic surgery (look kids, it’s Tom Selleck!) also winds up in a coma.

Coma_George-Wheeler
Susan Wheeler confronts Dr. George

Through the course of her investigation, Susan runs into resistance from the chief of anesthesiology Dr. George (Rip Torn) and Chief of Surgery Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), and discovers the mysterious Jefferson Institute, where long-term coma patents are being sent. Her guided tour of the facility (as part of a weekly tour for physicians) produces one of the more striking images in medical cinema: rows of coma patients suspended from the ceiling by wires run through their bones (to prevent bedsores, it’s said). The visual of dozens of patients hanging from wires coupled with the sound of multiple ventilators is effectively eerie, as is the almost robotic way that Ms. Emerson (Elizabeth Ashley) describes the facility (she gives an even more distant and disturbing performance earlier as she meets Susan outside the doors to the Jefferson Institute). The entire scene is wonderfully creepy and simultaneously fantastic and completely plausable.

Here be spoilers

Coma Ed Harris
Ed Harris, having a bad hair day

In consultation with two pathologists at the hospital (including Ed Harris in his first film role) begins to suspect that someone has slipped carbon monoxide into the anesthesia. This causes her to begin suspecting Dr. George, and her suspicions are also strengthened when she discovers a radio-controlled gas line that runs into one of the hospital’s operating rooms.  Later, when she sneaks away from a tour of the Jefferson Institute, Susan stumbles upon the truth: patients are being put into comas and then moved there so that their organs can be harvested and sold on the black market. When she overhears two workers talking about “George” she becomes convinced of her suspicions.

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Richard Widmark as Dr. Harris

After a (somewhat hokey) escape from the institute, she brings her findings to Dr. Harris, expecting him to immediately call to have Dr. George arrested. However, it turns out that HE is the one behind everything (his first name is George). Early in the scene, Dr. Harris and Susan both have a drink of scotch. It turns out that he has slipped a drug into her drink that gives her the symptoms of appendicitis. As the drug takes effect, Dr. Harris gives a rather strange soliloquy about medical decision-making (Richard Widmark does good work here, but what he rambles about just doesn’t seem to make sense to me).

I’m fine with Dr. Harris being the ultimate villain (though it’s not really a surprise), but this scene gives rise to my biggest issue with the film. Because of the drug, Dr. Harris is able to convince everyone that she has appendicitis, and that he will be operating on her himself. Of course, the operation will be performed in O.R. 8, which has the secret carbon monoxide line. Luckily for Susan, she is able to clue Mark in enough that he begins to believe what she has been saying. He eventually finds the radio device and stops it before Susan has breathed enough of the poisonous gas to do significant damage.

This is frustrating on a number of levels. Susan has been the driving force throughout the film. Even when everyone else (all men, including her boyfriend) urge her to give up on the investigation, she persists and eventually uncovers the truth. But here, in the final moments of the movie, she becomes a frustratingly cliché “damsel in distress.” Not only that, but Mark has been a naysayer for the entire film, constantly questioning Susan’s line of investigation, but here, he “comes around” at just the nick of time.

I suppose it’s not as bad as in the novel, where Susan’s fate isn’t even addressed (the reader is left hanging as to whether or not she survives), but it’s still annoying to have a film with a driven, professional female main character only to see her sidelined at the very end, dependent on her boyfriend to save her life.

That moment at the end does result in one of my favorite directorial touches that Crichton does in the film (his style is relatively perfunctory, with only a few moments of “flash”). I’m not even sure why I like it as much as I do, but there’s something clever to me about how they (literally) turn out the lights on Dr. Harris and his scheme, followed by a hard crash to the credits:

The Music

goldsmithOf course, this scene also provides a good example of the music in the film, which was composed by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith, who would work with Michael Crichton a year later on THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1979), turns in a score that works incredibly well in the film, but is a rather difficult listen in isolation.

Goldsmith had famously used a device called the Echoplex in previous scores, most notably PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and PATTON (1970). Essentially a tape delay effect, the Echoplex allows for notes to be repeated synthetically (again, the most famous use of this may be the fading trumpet notes in PATTON). For COMA, Goldsmith would again use this effect to a great extent, particularly for a two-chord motif that forms the backbone to the entire score.

“Stranger on the Street”

Notably, the entire first half of the movie is unscored, with the music only beginning once Susan notices a strange man watching her from across the street. I should say that this man follows Susan throughout the middle third of the film, culminating in a VERY creepy visit to where they store medical school cadavers…

This cue features both the Echoplex motif and the main “suspense” theme for the film: an unsettling melodic line in the high strings. Much of the score is similar in feel, working much better in the film than as a stand-alone listen.

“Cape Cod Weekend”

In addition to the main theme, Goldsmith wrote a love theme for Susan Wheeler and Mark Bellows. Played over a, frankly awkward montage, the theme is unfortunately a rather generic pop-score mishmash of “generic Goldsmith melodies.” I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the theme is simply out of place for the rest of the score (and the film), and it comes off as a Goldsmith-lite of sorts. Not one of my favorites…

Worse still, because this was the 70s, the score album contains the requisite disco version that I will spare you from.

“Jefferson Institute”

The Jefferson Institute Coma 1978
The cozy-looking Jefferson Institute

Much more interesting is the cue that follows Susan and Mark as they stumble upon the infamous Jefferson Institute. After the main theme returns, this time on low register clarinets, the strange, brutalist-style building comes into view accompanied by a swirl of piano and percussion that sounds reminiscent of Goldsmith’s PLANET OF THE APES (1968) score. After a (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) Herrmann-esque series of low clarinet chords, Susan approaches the building as thick string chords play a motif that is very much similar to what Goldsmith would write a year later in his superb score to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).

Final Thoughts

All in all, COMA is a rather effective and largely realistic medical thriller that suffers somewhat by an unfortunate lapse into a stereotypical “damsel in distress” ending. Given the controversies even today surrounding organ donation, the plot isn’t all that far-fetched. Plot issues aside, all of the actors perform their roles well, and while I can’t really recommend the music as a stand-alone listen, Jerry Goldsmith turns in a typically effective score in the film itself.

If this blogathon has turned you on to the idea of watching some Medicine In The Movies, and you like a solid medical thriller, I definitely recommend checking out COMA. Just don’t watch it if you have any procedures planned in the coming weeks!

Review: TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

“Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

As further evidence that network television executives are seemingly incapable of coming up with new ideas, ABC has launched a TV version of Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 directorial debut, TIME AFTER TIME. Honestly, I’ve not checked in on that attempt at a remake (as of now), but there’s quite a bit to say about the original film.

Previously, Meyer had been best known for his Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” while he would soon become the man who helped save the Star Trek film franchise. In between, he would write the screenplay for and direct TIME AFTER TIME, which was based on an original story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes.

img_6569On its face, it’s a rather silly premise. In 1893, Victorian novelist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who would later become famous for such stories as “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds” has actually built a working time machine, but so far has lacked the nerve to test it out. Over dinner with several of his friends and colleagues, including surgeon John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), he shows off his new machine and states that he plans to soon travel into the future to a time when, he believes, the social utopia will have been achieved.
His gathering is soon interrupted by the police—it turns out that Dr. Stevenson is really the notorious Jack the Ripper, and he has come to dinner immediately after committing yet another murder. As the police search Wells’s house, Stevenson steals the time machine and escapes to 1979. Thanks to a homing feature that really doesn’t make sense if you think about it, the machine soon returns, allowing Wells to set off in pursuit.

The Film

img_0037As mentioned earlier, this all sounds a bit silly. At the same time, it opens the door to several different types of stories at once: the “fish out of water” premise, with two Victorian gentlemen thrust into modern (for the time) society; a chase film with Wells tracking Stevenson through San Francisco; and eventually, a love story between Wells and 1979 banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Much of the early scenes in San Francisco play off of Wells’ bafflement at the world if 1979. He is utterly confused about the newspaper headline, “Colts Maul Rams.” A lunch visit to McDonald’s requires Wells to navigate fast food ordering (“I’ll have a Big Mac, fries…and tea to go.” And later, “Pommes frites! ‘Fries’ are pommes frites!”), and he subsequently becomes fascinated with the plastic table (“I never saw wood like this before,” he remarks to another patron).

Most of the success of the film is due to the three great performances. Malcolm McDowell is cast completely against type (he was most known at the time for playing Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE [1971]), yet he is superb as the bookish and somewhat bewildered Wells. Warner is equally excellent as Stevenson, playing a character who is both charming and menacing at the same time. Steenburgen turns in the third quality performance in the film, portraying a strong, modern woman that plays well off of Wells’s Victorian sensibilities, and she and McDowell certainly sell the developing romance between the two characters (the fact that the two actors themselves were beginning a relationship during filming probably helped).

There several stand out sequences worth highlighting. There are essentially two chases in the film: one a foot chase between Wells and Stevenson throughout the Hyatt Regency hotel and surrounding streets; the other involving Wells attempting to drive a car while chasing after Stevenson, who has taken Robbins hostage in her own car. While these two sequences aren’t quite at the level you see today, they certainly hold their own for their time, and they are helped significantly by the musical score (more on that later).

Possibly the best scene takes place right before the first chase, when Wells has tracked Stevenson to his hotel room in San Francisco. Since the opening scenes in 1893, Wells has been convinced that the future will hold a utopian society; however, his experiences in 1979 to this point have provided significant evidence to the contrary (a great beat earlier is when an exhausted Wells, an atheist, finds himself praying for refuge in a church only to be immediately evicted by the priest). Now, to Stevenson’s admitted shock, Wells finds himself standing in his former friend’s hotel room saying that neither of them belong in the future and they must go back. In response, Stevenson first congratulates Wells on his invention and then admonishes him for his belief in a “perfect and harmonious society.” On the contrary, society has moved more in Stevenson’s direction. To emphasize this point, he switches on the television, flicking through channel after channel of death, destruction, and violence, as Wells becomes more and more horrified.

We don’t belong here? On the contrary, I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. It is you who do not belong here, with your absurd notions of a perfect and harmonious society.”

Stevenson continues to taunt Wells, pointing out the easy access to guns and how American society encourages the ownership of such weapons when Wells finally snaps, smacking Stevenson across the face, “STOP IT!!” Stevenson’s only response is to calmly reply, “It’s catching, isn’t it? Violence.” It’s a scene that carries a lot of weight and is superbly performed.

img_6568There are only a couple of issues that I can find with the film. Amy Robbins is portrayed as a strong, modern (for the time) woman, but the film’s final act unfortunately reduces her to a clichéd “woman in distress” who needs to be rescued by Wells. It fits the pattern of Stevenson (and pays off a well-done plot point from earlier) and also gives the three actors the chance to do some fine acting, but it’s also a bit disappointing.

Likewise, Meyer emphasizes not once, but twice, a specific aspect of the time machine’s design in a way that almost provides a flashing neon sign saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER.” In his director’s commentary, Meyer does remark on how film audiences are unlikely to remember things through the entirety of the film and this is probably why he made the choice he did, but it does feel a bit like playing to the lowest common denominator.

The Music

According to Nicholas Meyer’s director’s commentary for the film, Warner Brothers initially insisted that TIME AFTER TIME have a contemporary score, as was the norm at the time. Thankfully, Meyer insisted that, because the film was about a 19th century man, the movie needed a score that reflected that sensibility. In the end, he hired a composer who was probably the farthest thing removed from a pop score: Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa.

Rózsa had made a name for himself during the “Golden Age” of cinema and was most well-known for scoring such epics as THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), (QUO VADIS (1951), IVANHOE (1952), BEN-HUR (1959; for which he won an Oscar), and EL CID (1961).

“Warner Bros. Fanfare / Main Title”

Meyer had wanted the film to have an old-fashioned feel to it, to the point where he brought back the Warner Bros. shield logo (having commented that the one in use at the time looked like something that would be stamped on office furniture) and the Max Steiner fanfare. Rózsa expertly transitions from the Steiner fanfare into his main titles, which serve to introduce his main theme that also serves as a motif for the time machine.

“Time Travel”

This theme also appears when H.G. Wells, having discovered that his friend Stevenson has used the time machine to travel into the future, finally decides to “work up the nerve” to use the machine himself and follow him to 1979. After a brief pause as the machine disappears from his work room, the music resumes, continuing a “tick-tock” rhythm played in the percussion, literally marking the passage of time, with glissandi and other swirling lines from the orchestra giving the sense that the machine may be going out of control.

“Murder”

Stevenson is given two themes in the film. The first is a descending motif that serves as his primary theme, often appearing when he is committing some atrocity  or simply lurking about. This cue covers the second of two on-screen murders that occur in the film, also highlighting the “L’Aio de Rotso” that is played by Stevenson’s musical pocket watch.

“The Ripper / Pursuit” (excerpt)

His second theme plays over the first action sequence. After a brief fight in Stevenson’s hotel room, Stevenson runs out the door with Wells in pursuit. The chase then begins in two glass elevator cars, across two levels of the hotel, and finally onto a pair of walkways over the street. Ultimately, Stevenson decides to run for it, until an ill-fated attempt to cross a street against traffic brings the chase to a sudden end.

“The Time Machine Waltz”

One of my favorite cues is barely heard in the film. At one point, Amy takes Wells to lunch, and this piece is played in the background. It’s a lovely waltz performed by piano and orchestra, and it certainly deserves more exposure than it gets in the movie.

“Dangerous Drive” (excerpt)

The final cue I’ll highlight is the second chase of the movie, where Stevenson has forced Robbins to drive him to the museum where the time machine is kept. In response, Wells runs back to Robbins’ house and takes control of her car, speeding off in pursuit. It’s another great instance of writing by Rózsa that covers many of the primary themes, modifying Stevenson’s main theme into a more up-tempo action mode. Playing counterpoint to this is the Wells/time machine theme. The cue wraps up with a more standard playing of the Stevenson theme, as he drags Amy into the museum with Wells close behind.

Final Thoughts

Overall, TIME AFTER TIME is a somewhat overlooked gem of a film. While it’s certainly not perfect, there is a lot to like here. Once you get over a somewhat goofy premise for a film, you’re left with three strong leading performances and some interesting social commentary. Highly recommended!

Review – NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”

i-was-featured-on-the-classic-movie-marathon-link-partyI was lucky enough to get to see NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the theater for the first time this past weekend. It’s long been my favorite Hitchcock film and it definitely still holds up on the big screen.

Note, I have tried to avoid spoilers in the discussion below, but there may be some to be found in the various clips I have included.

In the off chance you haven’t seen the film yet (and what are you waiting for?), Cary Grant plays New York ad man Roger Thornhill, who finds himself mistaken for a U.S. spy. After a kidnapping/murder attempt by foreign operative Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) goes awry, Grant sets off to try to find the real agent and to set the record straight.

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Along the way, he manages to also get framed for the murder of a United Nations representative and meets and falls in love with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train ride from New York to Chicago. Ultimately, the chase winds up at the footsteps and then the top of Mount Rushmore. There, Thornhill and Kendall attempt to elude Vandamm’s men, one of whom, Leonard, is played by a very young and very effectively creepy Martin Landau.
The film kicks off with a driving overture by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Rumbling timpani and low woodwinds complement the roar of Leo the Lion and the MGM logo, building to what Herrmann referred to as a “kaleidoscope orchestral fandango” that plays off of a superb title sequence designed by Saul Bass (the first time kinetic typography was extensively used in a film title) that culminates in possibly the most famous of Hitchcock’s cameos:

There is nary a wrong step in this movie, to the point where even an obvious blooper is held up as a classic. This is the kind of role that Cary Grant was born to play (originally, Hitchcock had wanted Jimmy Stewart in the role, and while I like Stewart, I have a hard time seeing him doing as well here). One of my favorite acting sequences is Grant playing off of rear projection has he is forced to drive a car while blind drunk (having been force-fed a bottle of bourbon…not sure how that works). Grant absolutely sells it as he struggles to navigate the road as Herrmann’s fandango theme plays in the background.

Eva Marie Saint is superb in her portrayal of someone whose motives and loyalties are kept somewhat unknown through the first two thirds of the movie. One of her best scenes is her conversation with Thornhill on the train as they share dinner together. The scene also is a good example of the quality of Ernest Lehman’s script, including a wonderful throwaway “button” line that would probably be cut in a movie today.

Herrmann also composes a beautiful love theme for Thornhill and Kendall, which appears throughout the film with various instrumentation (usually performed by solo clarinet or violin).

“The Forest”

As the film’s primary villain, Phillip Vandamm, James Mason is excellent at playing both suave and polite yet also cold and calculating. Watching Mason and Grant duel with words provides, not only another example of terrific dialogue, but the opportunity to hear two of the all-time great voices in Hollywood. As I recently remarked on Twitter, I could easily sit through a two-hour movie of nothing but the two of them talking to each other.

Although Herrmann did not write a specific theme for Vandamm, he did compose one to represent George Kaplan, the man for whom Thornhill has been mistaken. This theme appears multiple times and represents the “suspense” portion of the score. The theme is slow, consisting primarily of a series of three notes that repeatedly rise and fall.  A second motif is a repetitive two-note figure that occurs at various tempos throughout the film, usually during a sequence when the characters are on the move.

“The Cafeteria” (George Kaplan theme)

“The Police” (two-note motif)

Of course, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is probably best known for its famous sequence where Thornhill is sent to the middle of nowhere in Indiana and is attacked by a biplane. Despite the limitations of the technology at the time, the sequence holds up remarkably well, even on the big screen. Unlike some uses of rear projection (including in this film), it is used here in such a way that it is absolutely convincing. Smartly, the scene is completely unscored (aside from the “music” of the plane propeller), until the chase ends in a fiery crash that is accompanied by an “explosion” from the orchestra as well.

It was a real treat to have the opportunity to see this classic film the way it was meant to be seen. While it is certainly a product of it’s time (there are, admittedly, some creaky special effects shots), it still holds up well. When you add in three terrific lead performances (four actually, as Martin Landau is quite good as well), plus a great score by one of the era’s top composers in Bernard Herrman, you wend up with what is certainly one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films.

If you had a chance to catch NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the cinema, or if you’d simply like to talk more about this great film, please leave a note in the comments!

Review – EX MACHINA (2015)

“What happens if I fail your test?”

I recently nominated this film to be my favorite from 2015 as part of the Opinion Battles series run by Darren over at Movie Reviews 101.

Note: this review will contain some spoilers.

ex-machinaThe Film

I went to see EX MACHINA on a whim. I was at the theater with no real plans for what I wanted to see, and in the lobby was a card for a film that, as far as I could tell, featured an android with a pretty face. Around the body of Alicia Vikander were a number of quotes from reviews praising the film while almost warning against its content. Needless to say I was hooked, intrigued, and ultimately blown away.

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